Are Plant-Based Burgers Actually Good For You?

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Illustration by Gloria Diianni

From Tofurky to oat milk and meatless burgers, more plant-based foods are shaking things up at the supermarket and at some restaurants. Meat-mimicking burgers such as the Impossible Burger and Beyond Burger, in particular, have garnered lots of attention and sales. But how do these newfangled options compare nutritionally to the conventional foods they aim to replace, and are they good for you?

Savvy consumers know that it’s important to look beyond marketers’ sly come-ons; just because the label shouts “all natural!” or “organic!” doesn’t mean the product is a healthful choice. Those who do take the time to read the fine print — which in the food world is the nutrition label and list of ingredients — will see that even though swapping vegetarian foods for meat can bring a litany of health benefits, choosing a plant-based meat alternative over meat “is not always a black-or-white decision,” says Eileen Behan, RDN, a dietitian at Core Physicians in Exeter.

It’s good that food manufacturers are steering consumers toward plant-based eating. Major health organizations promote a diet that is heavy on the veggies, and products such as Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger can provide meat lovers with a tasty and approachable entrée to more healthful eating, serving as “transitional foods,” health experts say, for those who want to eat less red meat but struggle to go plant-only. Plus, mounting evidence shows that compared to beef, Beyond Burger and Impossible Burger are better for our beleaguered environment, as they require significantly less water and land to produce, and they generate less greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem is that, to deliver a highly palatable product that replicates the taste, texture and mouthfeel of meat without including meat in their ingredients, manufacturers heavily process ingredients, and add saturated fat and a lot of sodium.

The nutritional results are not ideal. A serving of Beyond Burger or Impossible Burger, compared to the same amount of 85% lean ground beef, is significantly higher in sodium, and equal in calories, fat and saturated fat, says Heather Wolfe, MPH, RDN, LD, a health and wellness coach at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. The saturated fat in some meat mimickers comes from tropical oils such as coconut oil and palm oil, which are not good for heart health. Plant-based alternatives do not have cholesterol, though, “because plants don’t have livers,” Wolfe says, “and they offer a little bit of fiber, which you do not get in a [meat] burger.”

Clearly, although many consumers perceive commercial meat alternatives as more healthful than meat, that is not always the case. Data about the direct effects that highly processed foods have on human health is still emerging, Wolfe says, but at a minimum research has shown that in general, nutrient loss occurs when a food is highly processed.

“These newer meat alternatives don’t remotely resemble anything in nature,” Wolfe says. “When we get further away from what our grandmothers would have recognized as real food, it raises questions about digestion and absorption and chronic disease down the line because we don’t have the data yet to know.” (Also, in case you’re wondering, Impossible Meat products contain genetically modified organisms or GMOs, while Beyond Meat products, according to the company’s website, do not. The jury is still out on the clear risks and benefits of GMOs, Wolfe says.)

Ideally, people who hanker for a burger will make their own using ingredients such as black beans and brown rice, or they will buy products such as frozen black bean burgers that might have high sodium but are likely to be less processed than faux meat, and to have very little saturated fat.

Otherwise, since there currently seems to be no clear winner in the nutritional contest of meat vs. highly processed plant-based alternatives, choose based on what matters most to you, Wolfe says, whether it’s the environment, sodium intake, cholesterol or something else. As you weigh your options, remember to factor in sodium-heavy condiments and side dishes that you plan to enjoy with your burger. Marinade, barbecue sauce, cheese, pickles and fries can compound nutritional damage, so “think about the meal as a whole when you create it,” Wolfe advises.

“Meat mimickers or meatless alternatives … can be good for people who might want to take steps toward a plant-based diet,” Wolfe says. “But there’s no health halo” around these products. “Anything highly processed should just be eaten on occasion … not three times a week.”

Indeed, “these products are not perfect, but they’re a step in the right direction,” Behan says.

Up next: Lab-grown meat
File this under “Uh, waiter? There’s a chicken wing in my petri dish.”

Just as we’re trying to get our collective heads around the notion of milk made from oats, and sausages and burgers that don’t contain any meat, scientists are busily concocting lab-grown “cultured” meat by nourishing animal cells in a lab, coaxing them to grow into future steak, sausage, chicken nuggets and more. The same principles are also being applied to seafood.

Cultured meat raises hope on a number of fronts, including the potential to ease world hunger and spare countless animals that would otherwise be raised for industrial agriculture, and it bodes well for the environment, as it generates less greenhouse-gas emissions and uses less land and water than commercial meat production does.

Consumers hoping to try lab-grown meat will have to be patient because cultured meat products are not yet widely commercially available. Vegetarians should note that unlike meat imitators such as Impossible Meat and Beyond Meat products, lab-grown meat is not plant-based but is, in fact, meat.

Recipes — Make Your Own Meatless Burgers

TofuburgerGolden Tofu Burgers

Bring the tofu back! Make these tasty additions for a classic barbeque or for an easy make-ahead dinner. The recipe makes 8-10 burgers, so you’ll have plenty to freeze or enough to feed a crowd.

Source: modified from Hannah Brilling, former dietetic intern with LiveWell/WorkWell. Adapted from a recipe made in the COOP Food Stores Commissary and sold in stores.

Makes: 8-10 servings; Serving Size: 133 g or ⅓ cup portions

Equipment: A food processor or blender is very helpful to process the tofu, but not required. A grater, skillet and cookie sheet or other oven-safe baking dish will be needed as well.

14 ounces tofu, firm or extra firm
1 tablespoon oil (canola, sunflower, or safflower)
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 cup diced red bell pepper
¾ cup diced yellow onion
1 large carrot, shredded
1 tablespoon tamari or fish sauce
1 ½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
2 medium eggs
1 cup (4 ounces) loosely packed shredded cheddar or Monterey jack cheese
1 cup bread crumbs
1-2 cups quick oats
Cooking spray

1. Place tofu in clean dish towel and place between two cutting boards. Top with heavy book or object and let sit for 30 minutes.

2. Preheat oven to 375°F.

3. Place oil in small nonstick sauce pan, heat to medium-low. Add curry and cumin. Cook for about a minute, or just until fragrant.

4. Add red peppers, onion and shredded carrot. Allow to cook for 5-6 minutes, or until onions appear translucent but not browned. Set aside.

5. Transfer tofu to a food processor or large mixing bowl. Process, blend or mash until tofu appears smooth. Add tamari, Dijon mustard and eggs to food processor (or bowl) until combined. If using a food processor, transfer to large mixing bowl. Mix in sautéed vegetables.

6. Stir in cheese. Stir in breadcrumbs.

7. Add 1 cup of quick oats and stir to combine. Assess consistency: If burgers hold together in your hands and aren’t too sticky, they are done (if they hold together but feel sticky, that’s OK). Add additional oats if needed.

8. Line cookie sheet with parchment paper and lightly oil it.

9. Make patties the size of desired “burger” — no shrinking will occur during cooking.

10. Place formed patties onto lightly cookie sheet and bake for 12-15 minutes. Lightly spray tops of burgers and flip, cook other side for 12-15 minutes. Burgers should have a light golden crust on each side.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories 205, Total Fat 8g, Saturated Fat 2g,
Carbohydrates 21g, Fiber 3g, Protein 13g, Sodium 265mg

Hannah’s Healthy Hints
Tofu is an inexpensive complete protein. By using your favorite bun and toppings, this plant-based protein can become a filling main dish.
Be sure to mix wet ingredients well, but when it comes to adding the breadcrumbs and oatmeal, only mix just enough — this will keep the burgers from getting chewy.

BurgerBlack Bean Burgers

A vegan burger with a meaty bite, just the right spice and heat, and it’s sturdy enough for grilling
by Heather Wolfe, MPH, RDN, LD, CHC

Six servings, serving size is one burger

1 cup cooked brown rice (from ⅓ dry rice)
1 cup walnuts
2 teaspoons canola or avocado oil
1 onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon cumin
1 tablespoon paprika (smoked paprika is nice)
1 (15-oz) can black beans, drained, rinsed (1 ½ cups cooked beans)
¼ cup breadcrumbs (whole wheat if available)
¼ cup BBQ sauce
Serving suggestions: 6 Toasted buns, 1 avocado, lettuce, tomato and burger sauce: 2 parts mayo, 1 part ketchup mixture or salsa

1. Cook rice if you haven’t already. In general, brown rice is a 2:1 water-to-rice ratio (2 cups water for 1 cup rice), and it takes about 40-minutes to simmer, covered on your stovetop, or 20 minutes in a pressure cooker.

2. In a medium skillet over medium heat, toast walnuts until lightly brown. Remove from skillet and set aside to cool. Once cool, pulse walnuts in a food processor until they are a fine meal texture (very finely chopped but not yet nut butter).

3. Add oil to the same skillet. When oil is heated, add onions, salt and black pepper. Sauté onions until translucent, about three minutes. Add chili powder, cumin and paprika. Cook for an additional minute to bloom the spices.

4. In a large mixing bowl, add black beans. Mash with a fork until only a few beans are still whole. Mix in the cooked rice, walnut meal, sautéed veggies, breadcrumbs and BBQ sauce until well combined. (You can adjust the moisture by adding more breadcrumbs if too wet or more BBQ sauce if too dry.)

5. Form six patties, about ¾ inch thickness.

6. Grill either on a preheated outdoor grill or in a skillet with a bit of oil on your stovetop. Cook about three minutes per side over medium heat.

7. Serve as you would any burger. For instance, serve it on a toasted bun topped with slices of avocado, lettuce, tomato and sauce of your choice.

Nutrition (per burger): Calories 280, Total Fat 15g, Saturated Fat 1.5g
Carbohydrate 30g, Fiber 7g, Protein 9g, Sodium 365mg

Categories: Health & Wellness